It wasn’t planned this way, of course. When Makai Ashton-Langford asked UConn to be released from his commitment, he didn’t expect to see the Huskies before his freshman season even began.
But when UConn and Providence agreed to play an exhibition game, to benefit the American Red Cross and victims of the recent hurricanes, it put Ashton-Langford and UConn on crossing paths. The Friars and Huskies meet up at Mohegan Sun Arena Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“It wasn’t in the books,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said before the Friars’ practice Tuesday at Alumni Hall. “I think it was a mutual situation between Connecticut and Makai. A lot of people are making a big deal of it, but it’s just a young man trying to find the right fit. It wasn’t the first time it’s happened in college basketball, and it definitely won’t be the last.”
The Friars didn’t make Ashton-Langford available for interviews; Cooley said he’d like his freshmen to get more prep and at least play a game before they speak to the media.
Ashton-Langford, 6-foot-3, from Worcester, played AAU ball with Jalen Adams and followed him at Brewster Academy. When he committed to UConn in September of 2016, as a top-50 recruit, he appeared to be the latest in the line of New England point guards to lead the Huskies. In the turmoil following UConn’s 2016-17 season, after three players transferred, Ashton-Langford withdrew his commitment. Providence had been his high on his list, and his father, DeMarr, told the New Haven Register the departure of associate head coach Glen Miller “hit Makai hard.”
With Adams returning as a junior and Alterique Gilbert, set back last year by a shoulder injury, returning as a redshirt freshman, Ashton-Langford couldn’t have counted on playing a lot of minutes as a freshman at UConn, which also has sophomore Christian Vital and added fifth-year transfer Antwoine Anderson in the backcourt.
“He made a choice that’s best for him,” Ollie said Sunday. “… No matter if he’s going to Providence or here, I got an opportunity to meet his family, meet him as a person and I love him. It’s not a contract that we sign. I still love Makai. His family is wonderful. His whole family is wonderful. They made a choice for them, and I’ve got to live by that. No judgment, no ill feelings against Makai.”
At Providence, Ashton-Langford will play with senior point guard Kyron Cartwright, who was a second-team All-Big East pick and named the league’s most improved player last season.
“He’s still young. He’s got a long way to go,” Cartwright said of Ashton-Langford, “but he’s got a lot of talent, and he’s a really good kid. That’s our job, as the older class, to help them get better every day. [Makai’s] strengths are, he’s very athletic, quick, a very smart player. His weaknesses, he’s young, hasn’t played in a game yet.”
Cooley will be experimenting with various combinations in the exhibition game against UConn, including Cartwright and Ashton-Langford in the backcourt together.
“Makai’s got a long way to go,” Cooley said. “He’s a young man who has a lot of talent that needs to be harnessed, that needs to be defined. The physicality, the practices, going to class — he’s a long way away, but we’re really fortunate to have him.”
Tickets for the game, which was set up only a week ago, are $10, $25 and $50 and have been selling well; Providence officials are estimating at least 6,000 will be in the arena. The game, a reunion of longtime rivals in the original Big East, will be streamed live on Fox Sports Go and can be heard on the UConn IMG Sports Radio Network, on WTIC-AM 1080 and the affiliates, WILI-AM 1400 and FM 95.3 (Willimantic); WELI-AM 960 (New Haven) and WGCH-AM 1490 (Greenwich).
“I think it’s a great game for us,” Cooley said, “a high-level game, right down the street. I appreciate Coach Ollie and UConn playing the game and, hopefully, it’s something we can do moving forward.”
Cooley envisions more such games for charity, but, like Ollie, sees a regular season series with UConn as a possibility for another day.
“We definitely have talked about it,” Cooley said. “Would we like it to happen? Yes. And at the right moment, it may, but right now, it doesn’t fit what he’s trying to do philosophically, or what I’m trying to do. Hopefully, moving forward, this is something we could definitely talk about.”
Providence is an experienced team, picked fourth in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll. For eight UConn newcomers, it will be a first game under the lights in front of this type of crowd, and for Gilbert, Terry Larrier and Mamadou Diarra, it will mark a return to the court after missing nearly all of last season with injuries.